Saturday, March 31, 2007

DVAR TORAH S2: Tzav/Shabbat HaGadol (It's the Great Sabbath, Charlie Brown!)

This Shabbat is called The Great Sabbath because it was one of the only two times a year in which Rabbis in olden times would address the community and the remarks, about how to properly kasher for the holiday, were greatly extended, hence the superlative Shabbat HaGadol. This makes it more ironic that my commentary will be short due to the fact that I am following the very instructions to kasher many kitchens and therefore have not the time required to compose a "great" sermon (in multiple senses of the word "great", quality AND quantity).

The Torah portion read during Shabbat HaGadol tends to get ignored but there is something very pertinent to passover. They used to offer a grain sacrifice daily on the altar. What would you do during Passover when you can't possess leaven? The answer, found in this week's Torah Portion, Tzav, is that the priest is to NEVER offer Chametz, leavened bread, on the altar. Rather it is always to be in the form of Matzah, unleavened bread.

I wish we could have read the Haftarah assigned to Tzav (but not read this week because it is superseded by Haftarah Shabbat HaGadol the last words of Malachi). It would have concluded with the famous words: "Let not the wise man glory in his wisdom, let not the strong man glory in his strength, let not the rich man glorify himself with his wealth. For only with this may he glory: contemplating and knowing me, for I am the Lord. Who does kindness, justice and righteousness in the land, for these I desire -- the Word of The Lord."

Here's some fun with acronyms: כי אני ה' עשה חסד משפט וצדקה. The Rashei Teyvot (first letters) of the three things God desires spell חמ"צ. Chametz God desires leavened bread On Passover

And then there is the end of Malachi, the book which the Christians end their Old Testament. As for the Jews it is the last book in Prophets. We still have the Writings section to go. Anyway, it talks about the arrival of Elijah the Prophet to announce the Messiah. The final thing that happens is that God "will send Elijah the Prophet,
לפני בא את יום ה' הגדול והנורא before the Great (Shabbat HaGadol could also be named after this term in the Haftarah) and Awesome Day of God. And he will incline the hearts of fathers toward their sons and sons toward their fathers." There is a little more but it is a bad note so we repeat the penultimate verse.

Well, I went on way too long. It really is the Great Sabbath.

Have a Great Sabbath! (Ha! Get it? Great Sabbath? Oh this stuff is wasted...)

Saturday, March 24, 2007

DVAR TORAH S2: Vayikra ("that's one small aleph for a man")

We now enter the hardest book of the bible for which to write original Divrei Torah. It is difficult to adapt the "Torah of Priests", Leviticus, consisting of little narrative and little else besides priestly sacrifices, to today. Yet the very first word of the book, also its namesake and the namesake of this week's torah portion, ויקרא Vayikra, can speak volumes. Notice that I shrunk the size of the last letter of Vayikra. In the Torah scroll, the Aleph at the end of the word is written very small, the most famous small letter in the entire bible due to its primacy in a book. "God called upon Moses" or "God named Moses". Moses, the greatest person who ever lived was also the only one to speak to God "face-to-face" and he had every reason to be singled out by God after all of the things he did for the people Israel ("he" being Moses). Yet the smaller aleph indicates the humility of Moses. Moses was too humble to be publicly called out by God and spoke to Him in private. And, though I didn't read it anywhere (I don't have text in front of me), maybe the aleph is small because it is to be removed: :ויקר Moses was dear to God. Or: God was dear to Moses. It could work either way.

Shabbat Shalom and No Ruz Mubarak to all my friends from Shushan.

Moshe, who was called by name by God.

Saturday, March 17, 2007

California Primary moved up

Governator Schwarzenegger signed into law yesterday that the 2008 Primary Elections in California will be moved up to February 5, 2008, from the original planned June primary date. This is HUGE. It makes California a much more important state. I thought it might be fun to move it to, say, January 8, 2008 and see what Iowa does in response with their Caucus. By Iowa state law they must have the first elections in the country. Well, where it is right now gives the great state of California, a state that if it was its own country would have the sixth largest economy in the world, as well as holding 55 congressional seats (13% of all voting house members are Californian), some serious leverage. New Hampshire, traditionally following Iowa, is now third after Nevada's Democratic Caucus. As a Californian I don't like the amount of time which candidates spend in Iowa (one of my former roommates is probably shaking his head right now) and New Hampshire. Why do these states that provide corn and (um) granite hold so much sway over the political make-up of the general elections? How about California that contributes all of the media (which my people, in turn, control)? Well now California is set at #5. Super Tuesday is gone. Now California is going to have its day and maybe we'll see a Presidential Candidate motorcade on Ventura Blvd sometime soon...

DVAR TORAH S2: Vayakel/Pekudei/Shabbat HaChodesh (the most successful synagogue appeal ever)

As my synagogue is beginning a campaign to raise a staggering $25 million to renovate the main sanctuary, two social halls, the school buildings, and the parking lot I find these Torah Portions very ironic. Moses is told by God to make an appeal to the "wise-hearted" people to bring in donations to build the Mishkan, the Tabernacle which will serve as a portable precursor to the Temple in Jerusalem. In the only time in history, the people bring TOO much and Moses is told to refuse any more donations. If only my synagogue had that tzurus...

But wait! Where did all of the gold, silver, precious stones, and fabrics come from? Weren't all of the spoils of Egypt destroyed in the account of the Golden Calf? Not exactly... While the men did donate all of their bling to the the construction of the baal idol, their wives refused. Much like their role in the celebration of crossing the Sea of Reeds, the women come into their own as the heroines in the story of the building of the Mishkan. Go Sisterhood!

Meanwhile two men are called out by name by God to undertake the daunting task of being the architects of this massive and holy building project: Betzalel ben Uri of the tribe of Judah and Oholiab ben Achisamach of the tribe of Dan serving as Chief and Assistant architects respectfully (also notably representing the largest and smallest tribes respectfully). I am fascinated by midrash that indicates that Moses has no idea how to visualize any of the components of the Mishkan and so God sends him fiery visions of each vessel but Betzalel and Oholiab don't need any assistance to form the objects. The beauty is that it takes a village. Even Moses cannot be self reliant. As a future rabbi I know I will not have all the answers, even with an Ivy League diploma. I will seek a doctor for medical stuff and a lawyer for civil law stuff. People can come to me for some of that old time religion, the spiritual stuff, but I will go to others for the subjects in which I don't specialize.

Meanwhile the special maftir. Biblically this next week we are supposed to celebrate the New Year in Judaism. I like the idea of spring being the beginning of a year because it indicates rebirth. Fall may be more appropriate for Rosh Hashannah because it involves the restarting of the agricultural cycle, but spring is the apex (except here in SoCal where the fruit trees have been in bloom for months and we have our fig growing season in the middle of the fall). Why do you think the rabbis call the mitzvah here "It shall be the first of months for you" as the most logical to begin the Torah?

Plus I love not having to say Tachanun for a month...

Shabbat HaChodesh Shalom!

Saturday, March 10, 2007

DVAR TORAH S2: Ki Tisa/Shabbat Parah (Holy Cows! (I have probably used this one before, but I don't have time to check))

Gotta be quick now. I spent my day off walking/power-walking to Universal Studios and back; at least 20 miles total over a 5 hour period. I will probably make the mapmyrun soon and will likely post the "best-of" walks on this site in due course. Anyway, that takes away from my writing time and I decided to spend the majority of the few minutes I have before services (which at this time of year are an hour before Shabbat even starts; to change in two days witeh DST) on the "Triple Shin" required before Shabbat.

Quickly on the Torah Portion, and I must come back to it later as it is very important, this is one of the most important Portions in the Bible, that of the account of the Golden Calf as well as God and Moses' responses to the events. God seeks to destroy Israel and replace them with a nation of the descendants of Moses and Moses successfully changes the mind of God.

A couple of themes to think about over Shabbat, something I planned on teaching my class on Wednesday but we had a fire drill that screwed-up my timing:\

Aaron v. Hur: If you were in a dangerous situation where you had the option of either acceding to the depravity of the lynch mob though you know that it is wrong (and likely don't want to do it) or standing up against them and likely becoming a martyr when they assassinate you, which option do you choose? Hur condemned the people for ceasing their belief that Moses was alive and coming back after, by their count, 40+ days on the mountain and for contemplating building a statue to worship and for his trouble, according to the midrash, he was killed by a stoning mob. Aaron in response to this, fulfilled the mob's request to build the idol of the Golden Calf, though he knew it was wrong, perhaps to save himself. What would you do?

God's nature, anthropomorphisms, etc: Here we have the Thirteen Attributes of God, describing God's nature, as well as copious anthropomorphic references to God's Face, Back, Hand. What is your belief in God and if you believe, what is God's nature? Spirit? Body? Unknowable ("No man can see my face and live")?

Can one change God's Mind? Is it wise to try to do so? Ask Moses.

What's with that paradoxical Chok of the Parah Adumah, the Red Heifer? It makes pure those who are impure and makes impure those who are pure? King Solomon claimed even he couldn't figure this out? What do you make of it?

Have a peaceful and cow-filled Shabbat.

Thursday, March 01, 2007

DVAR TORAH S2: Tetzaveh/Shabbat Zachor/PURIM! ("The World According to Garb")

I have already written five Divrei Torah for Purim so I will take a slightly different approach, weaving together the Parashah Tetzaveh, the special Shabbat of Zachor Et Asher Asa Amalek, and the holiday of Purim (and perhaps a little of Taanit Esther, but the original three day one that happened during Passover the year prior to the Original Purim and not the military fast that we actually commemorate the anniversary of nowadays).

This week's Torah portion, Tetzaveh, speaks of the costume of both the High Priest and the ordinary priest. It goes into excessive detail on the specifics of each piece of clothing, dye, metal to exact specifications of God. These uniforms are meant to identify these holy people and act as a conduit to God.

We don't give clothing enough credit for its importance. It has acted as a catylist device in many historical (read: biblical) events. Clothing, dictated through many changing fashions, comes to symbolize moods and elegance, beauty and care. This is very true in the story of Purim. Sackcloth (a wikipedia article that I must remember to edit) was the preferred form of clothing for mourning in the ancient times (I will be wearing a sack of rice for my megillah reading on Purim where Mordechai dons sackcloth). Mordechai, Esther, and all the Jews put on sackcloth during the three days of their fast to mourn the evil decree of genocide written against them by the wicked Haman. Mordechai is unable to access places he is usually able to enter due to his clothing choice, signifying that sackcloth is not considered acceptable in society. At the end of the three days, an unwashed and unfed Queen Esther removes her sackcloth (and ashes) washes herself and dons the most beautiful clothing and finds favor in the eyes of her husband the King.
Midrashically, Ahasuerus, at the seven day feast which followed the 180 day free-for-all, was dressed in the garb of the High Priest of despoiled Jerusalem, the pure gold of the Temple used for profane purposes by the Persian emperor. Mordechai is dressed in the King's coronation robes when led through the streets in a parade led by Haman, and in the end when Mordechai becomes the Prime Minister, when Mordechai was dressed in the blues, whites and purples, and the gold crown of his office, the Jews had light, joy, gladness, and honor.

I was watching Disney's Aladdin (not as much of a kids' movie as you might think) on the car ride back from Palm Springs and I saw a lot of similarities, beyond the Jafar=Haman thing. Aladdin hides his identity of being a street-rat by dressing as a gallant prince, much like Esther hides her identity from the King. Jafar disquises himself as a kindly old man to get Aladdin to do his bidding. Jasmine dresses in burlap robes to sneak out of the palace. Here too we have the parallels in clothing

So we have therefore arrived at the disguise part of the discussion. Clothing does not have to be literal. Amalek is cloaked in stealth and deceit when they attack the stragglers, the weak, the women, the children, and the elderly of Israel from behind. God's role in the story of Purim could also be thought of metaphorically clothing-related. God hides Himself under an invisibility cloak throughout the story, His Name or appellations not mentioned once in the book, but His name can be seen as acronyms multiple times throughout the scroll.

So today we hide our faces on Purim. Esther can be translated as "I will hide" in Hebrew. We hide on Purim just as Esther hid her identity, and just as God hid Himself from the proceedings in Shushan, though it is hinted at that he was there. Our Megillah ends with the final verse, 10:3, but in the Apocrypha (which is not considered canonical in the Hebrew Bible) the book of Esther continues a few more chapters. The very next verse, 10:4 says "Mardocus said, 'God has done these things'." (Assume that Mardocus is Mordechai, Aman is Haman, etc...). God was there, clothed in both glory and invisibility.

So dress up, wear something fun. Who knows? Maybe the king will like what you are wearing so much that he will make you his queen...

A freylichen purim,

PS: BOO Haman!